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27 October 2015

Adventures in bad science reporting -- Cancer meat edition

Recently the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a research arm of the World Health Organization, classified processed meat as a known carcinogen and red meat as a probable one. Some people took it as a strong argument against meat. Industry PR called it "dramatic and alarmist overreach." I think this is an example of how poor science reporting, from the original press release to mainstream and secondary follow-ups, plus public innumeracy, can lead to over-political science news.

I.


Let's start at the source: What did the IARC's press release [pdf] actually say?
After thoroughly reviewing the accumulated scientific literature, a Working Group of 22 experts from 10 countries convened by the IARC Monographs Programme classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect.

This association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.

Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.

[...]

The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.
Emphasis theirs. Also, for American reference, a quarter-pound (4oz.) is about 113 grams. And wow! 18% increase in risk of colorectal cancer! Classification into Groups! That sounds scary! There's enough evidence that we might as well call "red or processed meat" cancermeat for short.

And now, let the skeptical caveats begin:

First, the full IARC study is to be published in Lancet Oncology, which is about cancer research and not about health policy.

Second, just from the announcement we don't know exactly what these Groups mean. I know my very first connection was with the United States' scheduling policy for drugs, where Schedule I means "way too dangerous and addictive for any use" and Schedule II means "maybe sometimes medical use," or something like that.

Third, we don't know the base rate of colorectal cancer! Or any rates, really. Just this "eating cancermeat will increase your risk of cancer by 18%" figure. Needless to say, base values matter when you're talking about proportions: (1.18) * (0.01) is a lot different than (1.18) * (0.20), for example.

II.

So how did Facebook see this? That is, how did the mainstream media cover this? Let's start at the Washington Post, a widely-read mainstream newspaper. Hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats cause cancer, World Health Organization declares, or so the title goes. This was posted to Wonkblog, so it's I guess not full journalism? But "wonk" is supposed to mean "getting nerdy about details" so I think we can still hold them to a high standard.
A research division of the World Health Organization announced Monday that bacon, sausage and other processed meats cause cancer and that red meat probably does, too.
As a first paragraph goes, that's pretty fair.
The report by the influential group stakes out one of the most aggressive stances against meat taken by a major health organization, and it is expected to face stiff criticism in the United States.
Ding ding ding! Politicization right off the bat. "One of the most aggressive stances against meat"? This is cancer research, not policy recommendation!
But the panel’s decision was not unanimous, and by raising lethal concerns about a food that anchors countless American meals, it will be controversial.

The $95 billion U.S. beef industry has been preparing for months to mount a response, and some scientists, including some unaffiliated with the meat industry, have questioned whether the evidence is substantial enough to draw the strong conclusions that the WHO panel did.
The Magical Balance Fairy is strong with this one. There are a couple times in this piece where the meat industry either flatly denies the conclusion, or plays a "well life causes cancer, so nyah!" kind of game. (Still, I don't think people who oppose the meat industry have such a powerful argument in this IARC announcement, as I'll explain later.)
In reaching its conclusion, the panel sought to quantify the risks, and compared to carcinogens such as cigarettes, the magnitude of the danger appears small, experts said. The WHO panel cited studies suggesting that an additional 3.5 ounces of red meat everyday raises the risk of colorectal cancer by 17 percent; eating an additional 1.8 ounces of processed meat daily raises the risk by 18 percent, according to the research cited.
This is sort of the Big Important Thing To Keep In Mind throughout all of this, and yet it's not even quantified—ironic since the beginning clause of this sentence is about seeking to quantify risks. But in terms of bad reporting it doesn't hold a candle to what comes after:
For consumers, the WHO announcement offers scant practical advice even while casting aspersions over a wide array of foods. [...] How much of those is it safe to eat? The group doesn’t offer much guidance[...] Should we be vegetarians? Again, the group does not hazard an answer.

And how exactly does red meat and processed meat cause cancer? The group names a handful of chemicals involved in cooking and processing meat, most of them nearly unpronounceable, and some believed to be carcinogenic. [...] Despite the voids in the science, the WHO findings might cast a pall over diners and those who serve them.
This is hack science journalism. That's to say nothing of the ridiculous related headlines inserted in the body of the article, like "WHO says hot dogs, bacon cause cancer. Does this mean we should all become vegetarians?" and "95 percent of the world's people may be wrong about salt," in a bid to out-clickbait Clickhole.

It's worth noting at this point that the article's author, Peter Whoriskey, is not a science writer for WaPo. His bio says he's mostly does finance and economics writing, with a bit about pharmaceuticals. I guess he was picked for this because the WHO? Anyway, the article devolves into some consumer-at-the-Whole-Foods quotes and then two nice bits from industry spokespeople.
“We simply don’t think the evidence supports any causal link between any red meat and any type of cancer,” said Shalene McNeill, executive director of human nutrition at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
I don't really fault the meat industry people for saying this sort of thing. Human psychology being what it is, and innumeracy besides, people might just avoid something altogether if a scientist-type person (or just someone in a white labcoat) tells them that the thing "has a risk" or "puts them at risk." As Han Solo says, "never tell me the odds!"

So it's a little game. Scientists say "such and such thing increases risk by X percent, error bars are thus and so" (oh wait this is science reporting there are never error bars /s) and PR reps say "that's preposterous, there's no causal link here!" and consumers are relieved that doing such and such won't literally turn them into a giant tumor but maybe end up moderating their behavior over time.
The WHO panel “says you can enjoy your yoga class, but don’t breathe air (Class I carcinogen), sit near a sun-filled window (Class I), apply aloe vera (Class 2B) if you get a sunburn, drink wine or coffee (Class I and Class 2B), or eat grilled food (Class 2A),” said Betsy Booren, vice president of scientific affairs for the [North American Meat Institute].
Okay, that goes a bit too far. This sort of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ attitude towards scientific research—"well yeah, but scientist say things all the time you guys! Am I right? Scientists...!"—really grates on me. (It's the same mode of quasi-ludditic argumentation that some people levy against Common Core Math, I think. The "I didn't bother to try to understand, but fuck it" attitude.)

The overall tone of the WaPo piece is fascinating and frustrating to me. By taking the very elements of proper scientific research—reviews of meta-studies, careful statistical analysis, risk and uncertainty quantification—WaPo turns around and fits it to a narrative about scientists never being able to make up their minds about what we should eat. ("Scientists...!")

III.

Okay, but enough slagging on WaPo/Whoriskey (at least for now). What about other mainstream outlets? PBS NewsHour has two pieces about this, one the straight news report and one a FAQ about the details. The author of both, Nsikan Apkan, is a science reporter for NewsHour, for what that's worth.


The NewsHour report was the first piece I saw on this, too. Let's see how it does:
Bacon, sausage and other processed meats are now ranked alongside cigarettes and asbestos as known carcinogens, the World Health Organization announced today. Processed meats cause cancer, and red meat likely causes cancer, the health agency says in a new report.
I actually think that the opening paragraph is more sensationalized than Whoriskey's, although overall (as I'll explain) I think Apkan does a better job overall. Ranked alongside cigarettes and asbestos is a super strong phrase, without the proper stipulations about what that ranking means.

The PBS article helpfully includes links to the full Lancet Oncology article in the third paragraph, as well as a meta-study cited as a "main line of evidence," and other helpful outside websites. In sharp contrast, the WaPo article doesn't out-link at all. To get to the official press release or the Lancet Oncology article (just the abstract!), you'd have to have clicked through to a different WaPo blog post ("WHO says hot dogs, bacon cause cancer. Does this mean we should all become vegetarians?" because of course that's the title) by yet another non-science staff writer. It's more of an FAQ, and better than the original WaPo article, but still inferior to even the regular PBS article, to say nothing of PBS' own FAQ.

Moving on, we get to the first substantively problematic paragraph:
Processed meat now falls into “group 1,” meaning it ranks as high as tobacco smoking, the most dangerous variants of human papillomavirus (HPV) and asbestos exposure in terms of causing cancer. Red meat lands in “group 2A” with inorganic lead.
Combined with the provocative opening paragraph, this makes for an overall alarming tone. This piece doesn't fare much better than WaPo, but at least it doesn't go fawning over meat industry spokespeople and actually reports on how the science was done, rather than Reporting The Controversy. (Seriously, the subtitle to the WaPo piece was "U.S. meat industry objects controversial finding and prepares for battle.") The PBS piece just links to the WaPo piece in the final two paragraphs. So there's still a bit of Reporting The Controversy, but minimal. And lots of actual science reporting.

The FAQ ("Exactly what processed meat should I avoid, and other questions") is much much better, but contains what I think is a legitimate, and serious, factual mistake. It carefully goes over what the IARC means by "red" and "processed" meats, what "causes" means versus "is linked to," and provides some helpful infographics from Cancer Research UK's science blog (which I found before looking at the FAQ, and which I'll get to in a bit).

The big mistake is how the FAQ talks about increased risk.
On an individual level, it’s hard to say. On a population level, the WHO report cites this epidemiology meta analysis, which examined colorectal cancer studies going back to 1966.

Based on that study, a person who eats 50 grams per day of processed meat has an 18 percent chance of developing colorectal cancer. A person who eats 100 grams has a 36 percent chance and so on. According to Cancer Research UK, 50 grams per day would be on par with two slices of ham.
Yikes! That's not what the study says! Even the highest rate of colorectal cancer is nowhere near as high as 18 percent. That's a bad mistake.

IV.

Let's take a look at the 2011 meta-study cited by the IARC and linked to (twice!) by PBS. It's called "Red and Processed Meat and Colorectal Cancer Incidence: Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies," by Chan et al. Here's the abstract (full text just continues below, yay for PLoS One!):
Red and processed meats intake was associated with increased colorectal cancer risk. The summary relative risk (RR) of colorectal cancer for the highest versus the lowest intake was 1.22 (95% CI  = 1.11−1.34) and the RR for every 100 g/day increase was 1.14 (95% CI  = 1.04−1.24). Non-linear dose-response meta-analyses revealed that colorectal cancer risk increases approximately linearly with increasing intake of red and processed meats up to approximately 140 g/day, where the curve approaches its plateau.
Finally, some more numbers to work with! What did I notice?
  • First, the numbers given are relative risk. I'm not sure what that means vis-a-vis population statistics and actually getting cancer, so I'll have to look it up.
  • Next, the relative risks given seem small: 1.22 for summary RR and 1.14 for each 100g/day increase. But, given that I'm ignorant of relative risk, I can't say whether that these numbers are actually small relative to other known carcinogens or what. Maybe tobacco smoke has a RR of 1.01 for lung cancer! (Spoiler alert: it doesn't, that number is much higher.)
  • The 95% confidence intervals (CI) for the RRs are pretty tight, just plus or minus 0.1. That seems pretty definitive. Given that it's "relative" risk I would expect the null hypothesis to be that the RR is 1.0, so for summary RR that would be like 3 standard deviations away. A strong result indeed!
  • The relative-risk curve approaches a "plateau" at 140 g/day, which makes the "and so on" part of the PBS FAQ seem rather absurd.
Relative risk, according to Wikipedia and the Mayo Clinic, is just the ratio P(has colorectal cancer, given that) / P(has colorectal cancer, given that doesn't eat red meat). Or, in other words, the proportion of cancermeat-eaters who have colorectal cancer, divided by the proportion of non-cancermeat-eaters who have colorectal cancer. The Mayo Clinic article has a couple important paragraphs. First:
For instance, compare the relative lung cancer risk for people who smoke with the relative lung cancer risk in a similar group of people who don't smoke. You might hear relative risk being expressed like this: The risk of lung cancer for men who smoke is 23 times higher than the risk for men who don't smoke. So the relative risk of lung cancer for men who smoke is 23.
Twenty-three, not one-point-something. Seems important. (In percentage-higher terms, it's 2300% for smoking versus 18% for worst-case cancermeat.) Moreover:
Risk seems greater when put in these terms. A 100 percent increase in risk may seem enormous, but if the risk began as 1 in 100 people, a 100 percent increase in risk means that 2 out of 100 will be affected.
Right! So what are the base rates? The meta-analysis doesn't say, but that's not really an issue. The aim of that analysis was to show a clear statistical link, not tell us anything about base rates. As far as classification goes, we only care about solid statistical evidence, not the magnitude of the effect.

For example, if you roll a twenty-sided die, you know that there's a 5% chance the face will come up, say, on an 8. You know this with a very strong certainty. If we wanted to classify polygonal dice, say Category 1 dice are those which have a definite chance of showing an 8, and Category 2 dice are those dice which don't have a definite chance of showing an 8, then we'd have the following partition:
Category 1: d20, d12, d10, d8
Category 2: d6, d4
Is it good or bad that a d20 is Category 1 in this case? I dunno, maybe we want to roll high, in which case it's good; but maybe this is 1st edition AD&D where you try to roll low, and your character has a Wisdom score of 8 and is trying to write an article about the Greyhawk Health Organization's latest announcement about bat guano...

V.

Before I get to the Cancer Research UK blog, let's take a quick moment to appreciate that a Gawker blog did a better job at science reporting than other mainstream outlets. Yep, George Dvorsky over at Gizmodo ("Here's Why You Shouldn't Panic Over Processed Meats Causing Cancer") does it right.
It’s well known that certain meats have an association with cancer; in this respect, the latest report, which now appears at The Lancet, offers very little that is new. It merely brought the existing literature together in a way that finally allowed scientists to make some definite proclamations about the cancer risks of eating processed and red meats.
Ding ding ding ding! This is what the Washington Post article completely fails to appreciate, much less convey. "A bunch of experiments and research has been done over the years, now we've analyzed it and yup, there's something significant to the reported effects" is exactly how science moves along. It's not "woah, what's up with these scientists making proclamations and stuff?"
Specifically, the researchers say that risk of colorectal cancer increases by as much as 18% with each 50 gram (1.8 ounce) portion of processed meat eaten daily, and increases by some 17% with each 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of red meat consumption. But it’s important to keep these figures in perspective.
Indeed! Now we'll jump over to Cancer Research UK, which Dvorsky links to and quotes from (and pulls infographics from) at this point.

I found the Cancer Research UK post ("Processed meat and cancer – what you need to know") on the second page of my Google search results (search terms "red meat cancer" or something like that), after the Google Scholar citations, the Google News and main search results with clickbait-y headlines from mainstream outlets. Google should really do a better job elevating dedicated science sites when people search for science headlines.

Casey Dunlop (role at the blog unknown; but their previous post was also about bowel cancer) explains the relative risk quite nicely:
But before we move on, let’s be clear: yes, a prolonged high-meat diet isn’t terribly good for you. But a steak, bacon sandwich or sausage bap a few times a week probably isn’t much to worry about. And overall the risks are much lower than for other things linked to cancer – such as smoking.

[...]The results showed that those who ate the most processed meat had around a 17 per cent higher risk of developing bowel cancer, compared to those who ate the least.

‘17 per cent’ sounds like a fairly big number – but this is a ‘relative’ risk, so let’s put it into perspective, and convert it to absolute numbers. Remember these are all ball-park figures – everyone’s risk will be different as there are many different factors at play.

We know that, out of every 1000 people in the UK, about 61 will develop bowel cancer at some point in their lives. Those who eat the lowest amount of processed meat are likely to have a lower lifetime risk than the rest of the population (about 56 cases per 1000 low meat-eaters).

If this is correct, the WCRF’s analysis suggests that, among 1000 people who eat the most processed meat, you’d expect 66 to develop bowel cancer at some point in their lives – 10 more than the group who eat the least processed meat.
Yeah, not much to freak out about, but a fact to keep in mind when doing risk assessment. On that score, Dunlop does what nobody else (except Dvorsky, who also calls out the Guardian for a false assertion) and clarifies the point of the IARC's classification!
Processed meat has been classified as a ‘definite’ cause of cancer (or Group 1 carcinogen) – the same group that includes smoking and alcohol. And red meat is a ‘probable’ cause of cancer (or a Group 2a carcinogen) – the same group as shift work. While this may sound alarming, it’s important to remember that these groups show how confident IARC is that red and processed meat cause cancer, not how much cancer they cause.
It's worth paraphrasing: IARC classification is about whether a substance causes cancer, not how much it causes cancer. Given that cancer in general involves some probabilistic cell biology (i.e., how many mutations have stacked up to screw with properly-regulated cell replication) that's actually quite an important job. The "carcinogenicity" can be determined later.

Oh, and in further comparison to smoking:
In 2011, scientists estimated that around 3 in every hundred cancers in the UK were due to eating too much red and processed meat (that’s around 8,800 cases every year). This compares against 64,500 cases every year caused by smoking (or 19 per cent of all cancers).
So 3% of cancer in the UK is from cancermeat. Meanwhile 19% of UK cancer comes from, well, "cancer-sticks." Therefore cigarettes are something like six times more carcinogenic than red meat, but the IARC is equally confident that both these things cause cancer.

VI.

Finally, here's why political partisans shouldn't jump on this announcement too strongly.

For the meat industry, other than the perfunctory and performative denials, they should stay away from attacking the result too strongly, because it's not a very impactful result aside from all the (misinformed, miscommunicated) hype. The auto industry doesn't scoff at claims of people getting killed in car accidents. We know that driving increases one's risk of injury or death—human brains can't easily deal with controlling a thousand-pound metal frame at speed—but people still drive. They just exercise some (some) care while doing so.

For anti-meat activists, well, the ill-advisedness sort of depends on the strategy of the campaign. If it's more a "nobody should eat meat, full shop" kind of activism, then the same rules apply as to the meat industry. The result just isn't impactful enough: if people aren't convinced by the known yearly statistics on traffic deaths and severe injuries, they're not going to be convinced by low RR and low base rate. Even if they're statistically literate.

If you're more of a "humanely farmed meat is okay, in small amounts, but fuck the meat industry" person, okay, but there are many angles to gradualist animal activism. For example, in terms of "how many animals' lives are negatively affected by my consumption of meat," beef is way better than chicken, because a single cow produces lots of beef, whereas chickens produce less meat. Therefore one's yearly consumption of individual chickens is much higher than one's yearly consumption of cows. Hence, going off the IARC report alone doesn't actually do as much good as one might want, if the person you've convinced to change their lifestyle is just replacing beef with chicken.

So, here's a takeaway summary of the IARC announcement:
  •  Processed meats do cause cancer. Red meat probably causes cancer.
  • The relative risk is low: 17-18% higher than the least at-risk population.
  • The base rate of colorectal cancer is relatively low: 5.6% among low meat-eaters, and 6.6% among those who ate the most cancermeat (6.1% overall).
  • The rate of cancers from meat consumption is low relative to other carcinogens: 3% versus 19% from smoking, according to one UK study.
  • There is no real "safe" minimum for these meats, but given the low base rate, a moderate intake will not substantially increase one's lifetime risk of colorectal cancer.
Meanwhile here's a takeaway of the reporting on the announcement:
  • Washington Post sucked, gave inordinate time to industry naysayers and Reporting The Controversy.
  • PBS NewsHour barely passed, clearly a better effort than WaPo but with some frustrating alarmism in the main article and a serious error in the FAQ.
  • Freakin' Gizmodo did the best among popular outlets.
  • Cancer Research UK was MVP, being sourced from both the NewsHour FAQ and Gizmodo.
Overall it's a classic case of mainstream mediocrity (or outright awfulness) in science reporting. But at least it didn't give me cancer.

21 October 2015

Wednesday Links -- 21 October 2015

Here's some of the stuff I've read about this week that's worth a comment or two.

YouTuber c0nc0rdance makes some really thoughtful videos, and this one is no different: Cannabis and Psychosis. After watching this, one does start to recognize the extremely low probability for the implicit claims made by pro-cannabis rhetoric, namely, that pot is harmless. Um, it affects your body, how could it be risk-free? But I don't think that trumps the overall rightness of decriminalization, since we know some people are genetically predisposed to alcoholism but booze is still legal. That said, I would hate for cannabis to gain national legalization only to have it be as aggressively marketed as tobacco was or alcohol still is. (Not to mention how those drug cultures are portrayed in the media.)

Air Koryo: Still the world's worst airline. Who knew people ironically enjoy shitty air travel? But to be fair, Air Koryo does sound cartoonishly terrible.

Topher Hallquist providing some nice ideas for a future crypto-reformist fifth column in the GOP: Fantasy Republican presidential campaign platform. I tried my hand at something similar before, and reviewed another effort by an actual conservative.

Bleeding Heart Libertarians don't shy away from criticizing libertarianism or the liberty movement. In this case, it's the former: The Bad Libertarian Argument for Commodification.
For any particular good X, is morally permissible for you to sell X?

Note that this question doesn’t ask whether selling X ought to be legal. Rather, it asks whether selling X would be morally wrong.

Some libertarians think these questions are easy. If X belongs to you, of course you can sell it. For example, “it’s my body” so of course I sell sex or organs. Right?

Not so fast. In Markets without Limits, Peter Jaworski and I explain why this kind of argument doesn’t do the work some libertarians think it does.
Nearly one year ago I wrote about this very thing!
The conversation about voluntary indefinite servitude was where things started to get interesting. Specifically, the idea that at some point in time t = t_0, you have sufficient moral agency to agree that, for all time t > t_0, your property rights are at the disposal of another person.

But there's a very open question: are the "you" of t = t_0 and the "you" of t = t_1 > t_0 actually the same person? What right does the t_0-you have to abridge the agency of all future you's? I think not; and in fact, indefinite servitude fundamentally being coercion of all your future selves seems like a damn good reason to morally reject such servitude.
Based on the excerpt Brennan provides, this is an independent objection: his and Jaworski's involve some more subtle distinctions, and I think they're less openly metaphysical and wanky as mine. Which is fair :P

The Iliad of MC Homer.
Muse, rhyme of the beef of the son of Peleus
that piled mad grief all up on the Achaeans
and spurred to Perdition the souls of real gangstas,
yo, and for bitches an' crows they made banquets.
Pretty great. The author makes a decent point justifying the stylistic choice, too.

It actually is sort of a One Weird Trick, try to watch for people making only positive claims, since that's a decent sign of crank epistemology: A Wonderfully Simple Heuristic to Recognize Charlatans. A cursory reading of my modest library of skeptic history and kook literature (and mail directories) would seem to validate the heuristic. See also Making beliefs pay rent (in anticipated experience), e.g., "It is even better to ask: what experience must not happen to you? Do you believe that elan vital explains the mysterious aliveness of living beings? Then what does this belief not allow to happen—what would definitely falsify this belief? A null answer means that your belief does not constrain experience; it permits anything to happen to you. It floats."

Not yet gods. I confess to lacking this sort of sci-fi-ideation-anxiety. So many in the rationalist and EA communities seem to exhibit it though, to some degree... is this unique to the subculture or is it just uniquely fixated? Like, do other people experience this with regard to, er, whatever it is that the Baby Boomers of Real America do?

Nothing much else to say here: People Livestream This Guy's Face to Be "Healed"

Two thoughts involving East Asia vis-a-vis the West, and history: Whig vs Haan and Of culture wars and Mongol hordes; Of immigrants and kings.

Beautiful gobbledegook from Mitrailleuse, a Neo-reactionary blog: Towards a neoreactionary aesthetic. I guess 3.6k words probably does pass for "preliminary notes" in a subculture where 10k words is like the bare minimum for any blog post of "substance"... anyway, stuff like this delights me because it makes the crankitude of NRx that much more obvious. And cranks with universal world-systems are so much more fun than those who run around handing out nude photos of themselves because God told them to. Not to mention that I can't help but smirk with ironic glee whenever someone can use the words "decadent" or "degenerate" with total seriousness in a political commentary.
The phallic form itself is emblematic of Exit. That which pierces the heavens comes to a point; it elongates, it thrusts, it penetrates through barriers, even the firmaments themselves. While not beautiful in and of themselves, skyscrapers have a quality of Exit to them morphologically. The flying-machine, the rocket, the ship, the car, all of these present aspects of the aesthetic of Exit. Exit is masculine, transcendent and impregnated with distance. Exit is aggression, conquest, domination; but it is also exploration, discovery and adventure. It is the begetter.
Not just vacuous nonsense, but hilarious vacuous nonsense. Granite cocks, indeed!
Anyone who read the book Jurassic Park (the movie doesn’t count for this at all, since it lacks the cerebral aspect) knows actually a thing or two about chaos.
my sides

07 October 2015

Wednesday Links -- 7 October 2015

Here's some of the stuff I've read about this week that's worth a comment or two.

In China, Your Credit Score Is Now Affected By Your Political Opinions – And Your Friends’ Political Opinions. A writer for the ACLU sounds the alarm: China’s Nightmarish Citizen Scores Are a Warning For Americans...
- Anybody can check anyone else’s score online. Among other things, this lets people find out which of their friends may be hurting their scores.

- Also used to calculate scores is information about hobbies, lifestyle, and shopping. Buying certain goods will improve your score, while others (such as video games) will lower it.

- Those with higher scores are rewarded with concrete benefits. Those who reach 700, for example, get easy access to a Singapore travel permit, while those who hit 750 get an even more valued visa.

-Sadly, many Chinese appear to be embracing the score as a measure of social worth, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

Meanwhile, in America: Everyone you know will be able to rate you on the terrifying ‘Yelp for people’ — whether you want them to or not.
Imagine every interaction you’ve ever had suddenly open to the scrutiny of the Internet public.

“People do so much research when they buy a car or make those kinds of decisions,” said Julia Cordray, one of the app’s founders. “Why not do the same kind of research on other aspects of your life?”

This is, in a nutshell, Cordray’s pitch for the app — the one she has been making to development companies, private shareholders, and Silicon Valley venture capitalists. (As of Monday, the company’s shares put its value at $7.6 million.)
Proof that "anti-human tech-douche" is not the sole province of (mostly white) men. These ladies are still very much within the sphere of "punchable faces," though it's not polite to hit a lady. See also Ken White at Popehat: Down With Peeple!
How could you abuse Peeple? Let me count the ways. If they're really going to let you open up a "page" for someone else involuntarily — and they may retreat from that — it would be childishly easy to submit a profile picture that is non-obscene but as unflattering as possible. Peeple limits you to "positive" reviews of people who aren't members, and embargoes negative reviews? That's fine. Let's see how helpful three-out-of-five star reviews are to your professional reputation. Or let's test their negative-review filter against my creativity and mood. "Julia Cordray is more generous and giving to her household catamites than anyone I know." "Nicole McCullough's slow but steady rehabilitation is nothing short of amazing."
 Our cyberpunk future, everyone. Way more Snow Crash absurd than Neuromancer serious after all.

(h/t Syd's Birthday Challenge) Your calendar is a mess—Geoff Teehan, Facebook's Senior Design Director, makes some pretty good recommendations about proactive scheduling and such.

I don't know about other people's experience, but as a mathematics grad student I derived some of those calendar strategies myself: take classes in the afternoon and back to back, try to get a full day without classes, etc. So that's funny.

The other thing is that all the calendar problems he describes are a big part of the complaints I read about workplace management in tech: that the various styles seem optimized against long blocks of work time, and that it's meetings-on-meetings-on-meetings. Teehan doesn't seem to be targeting his post towards managers, but I wonder how big the effect spread would be between grunt-level workers versus managers as they implement his recommendations.

06 October 2015

Summer camp for "adults," pt. 2 -- Inmates Rahh-ning the asylum

This post is a direct follow-up to: Summer camp for adults, pt. 1 – The Rahh of the wild

I.

In the previous post I analyzed the marketing for Camp RAHH, a so-called "summer camp for adults." The whole thing made me almost excessively peevish, and I want to figure out why. Let's recap what seems to be the problem here.

The ethos at play is one where the main problems are external. It's society that's creating FOMO in us; society that demands constant status updates and check-ins; society that forces booze and drugs into our hands, and makes us use them; it's all peer pressure. Them, not us. Society is preventing us from unleashing our truly authentic, uniquely personal selves.

But see, all five (five) sections in that post were more or less predicated on the assumption that the target demographic for Camp RAHH is sane. The alternative, far more depressing than enraging, is that something is wrong. The prospective RAHHers haven't made piss-poor choices and drunk the marketing Kool-Aid; rather, they're addicts, and Camp RAHH is more rehab clinic than detox retreat. Even the most woo-ish detox sessions still assume agency on the part of the client. Not so much with rehab. It's, er, all-inclusive.

The parallels are much clearer, too. Sure, typical alt-med detox marketing has the same platitudes about "authentic selves" and "uniquely personal" stuff—usually, custom "holistic" treatments and One Weird Tricks That Big Pharma / Doctors Hate—but only the culty (or especially money-hungry) ones go for the all-inclusive route. Seriously, the HMX / regression-to-past-happiness / self-affirming-platitudes trifecta seems all too unnervingly like the SparkNotes to Nurse Ratchet's workflow in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

II.

One can get a better sense of the Camp RAHH ethos by reading accounts of its inaugural session. In particular, accounts from The Liberty Project (more on them later) and Seattle Magazine (tagline: "Smart. Savvy. Essential.")—oh wait, they're both written by the same person!

So: what did the outside accounts think about the pitch? In a pre-camp article for Seattle Magazine, Happy Analog Trails: We're Going to Summer Camp!, our intrepid correspondent writes:
You're thinking: She’s crazy. Why on Earth would anyone want to spend time in the great outdoors--47 acres on the nearby Samish Island to be exact—sans booze, pot or an occasional game of Candy Crush?
I hope that's a (bad) joke? Why indeed: it's as if those five-ish years of Boy Scouts destroyed me or something. We didn't have any of those necessities, and the adult leaders certainly wouldn't have allowed them! What malign neglect! What deprivation! And when I went on a hike to Oyster Dome or Pine Lake with my Bellingham friends, or to Snow Lake with my fellow CTY teaching assistants, we didn't bring any of that either! How long the lasting trauma! How deep the mental scars!

Upon her return from camp, our courageous reporter writes for The Liberty Project: How a summer camp for grown-ups taught me to loosen up, lay off Twitter—without a shred of irony at the incongruity of juxtaposing "grown-ups" and "lay off Twitter"— and includes this observation.
As camp plugged along, I had zero urge to Instagram anything. I forgot Twitter existed. My fear of missing out (FOMO) was replaced with relief. It’s refreshing not to care what friends and family are doing. It’s refreshing not to share things.
Fear of missing out is a psychological phenomenon that almost certainly has a deeper history than the Internet age, it's just that social media connections make the effects all the more acute. Yet, I always associated it with mentally transmuting one's boredom or loneliness into a kind of paranoia about other people's fun. It stems from something that really is missing; as the Wikipedia article notes, FOMO might come from some lack of self-determination. One isn't getting some necessary emotional support, so one fixates on (real or imagined) distant instances of that support among other people. Fair enough, in theory.

It's strange, though, that FOMO in the quote is rhetorically bound up with sharing stuff. She "had zero urge to Instagram anything." "It's refreshing not to share things." I can't help but mentally amend "fear of missing out" to "fear of missing out... on being noticed." That, I think, is a real problem that social-media culture has created.

Now, I don't mean the actual fear of anonymity. That has surely existed as long as humans have been social animals, and has been a common phenomenon at least since the "modern era" where it was very possible to get lost in an urban environment. Anomie, the purported fragmentation of social bonds and moral guidance in a (usually urban) society, has been discussed since the Fin de siècle. Similarly boredom, including theories about its causation in modern society. But if you look at the response to these observations, it was mostly of the "we must fight this" kind. Whereas, with social media, the message is more like "you never need to experience this as long as you use this service" and not exhorting people to develop some sort of personal fortitude.

In other words, fear of anonymity is leveraged into a pitch to do more things on social media. It's not an imagined fear: the message is Well, you too could be popular and well-liked if only you post enough content and have a high Klout score and micromanage your SEO and always always ALWAYS think about #brand management...

That's how I end up viewing such astonishing videos as this millions-of-subscribers-on-YouTube woman filming herself crying over news of Steve Jobs' death. Because apparently private grief doesn't monetize. 

III.

In the Liberty article, our correspondend regales us with this anecdote about mealtime:
We ate chef-prepared lunches and dinners at a communal table where professional networking was forbidden, so we talked current events, travel and whether a $50 T-shirt was worth the investment. People discussed shared interests and calmly talked politics. Who knew how polite and engaging we all could be without phones glued to our palms and a few too many glasses of vino flowing in our veins?
How deep do you have to sink, to need admonishment to avoid professional networking? Again, is that not supposedly the default state of the American worker? Or else, the other stereotypical "relationships based on your job" paradigm is blue-collar workers going to the local bar after the work shift ends, and yet that is seen as a "deeply authentic" experience! Perhaps because steel workers aren't focused on #brand management?

I've seen the problem first-hand, in both its aspects: that is, I've talked to people who were either not polite or not engaging. On the less caustic side, I've been to at least a couple gatherings where nobody bothered to introduce themselves, and were terrible at it even when engaged. I for one try to play the minimally-good host and introduce relative strangers to each other at my own events, and so it's a complaint I've been vocal about for a little while now. Calling it the Seattle Freeze would a cop-out, and not even all that accurate; I personally hate small talk, but I will at least throw out the usual introductory lines to see if anything mutual comes up. It's worth pointing out that, yes, the people at the gatherings I have in mind were mostly tech/designer types; that is, the exact Camp RAHH demographic.

On the more caustic side, a lack of civility is mostly the province of the Age of Internet Outrage: you can see my own encounters here and here. Blessedly, I have yet to meet anyone quite so ridiculous in real life (just this kind of ridiculous) and so I have yet to learn whether I can prevent myself from trolling the shit out of them.

IV.

We should ask: what exactly defines Camp RAHH? What makes it worth the $395 entrance fee? After all, one can go camping for a lot less than that per person, and even first time backpackers don't need to spend much more than that for long-weekend excursions nowadays. (Unless you need hiking boots, too.) And if you already have outdoor gear, $395 is stupidly expensive by comparison.

Moreover, this is, ah, the Pacific goddamn Northwest, where we are surrounded by outdoor activity areas. We're also one of the most active communities in the U.S., which is to say, it should in principle be easy to find activity groups—for free—with whom to go on hikes, climb rocks, do archery, and so on. It should be easy, in principle, to agree to ditch the cell phones, and only bring a cheap dumbphone for emergency calling. (And if you're serious enough, it's easy to find places with no data connection.)

All of this, in principle, would require not much more effort than spending four hundred bucks and going to Camp RAHH. So why RAHH, RAHH-ther than independently replicating all its activities for free? Are groups found on Meetup somehow less authentic? What's the added value?

From the Seattle Magazine article:
As for lodging, we're bunking up by gender in the campground's range of dwellings including huts, A-frame chalets, tree houses and cabins. And just like at old-school summer camp, each cabin is assigned a camp counselor.
From the Camp RAHH website:
A Staff Counselor will be assigned to each cabin to ensure you have the best time possible.
And they keep using the phrase "all-inclusive." As in, once you buy in, all meaningful choices have already been made for you. Sit back, relax, and enjoy. Trained staff are standing by "to ensure you have the best time possible." Your leisure is our business.

I have to ask, seriously: is this a unique experience for the Millennial generation? Do we have such a meaningful subset of the cohort, that has never had an unmediated experience? Or at least not one of consequence? All these problems so far, seem to me to be problems of not knowing how to entertain oneself, or take the initiative and write one's own social script.

Compare this to the (decidedly heavy in the Gen-X-and-older demographics) CampQuest, where we put on an awesome summer camp for kids—and yeah, it's a different but not lesser pleasure to be part of that—and everyone has a role... but we all have responsibilities as well! Gasp!

Incidentally, why would this account of such a highly mediated experience be published at something called the Liberty Project? Let's see what that's about:
Liberty has been at the heart of freedom of expression for centuries. We all know that liberty is one of our foundational values – it sets the table for the hard-won freedoms we enjoy every day like voting, free speech, love and marriage. But it’s also liberty that gives you the right to be your authentic self: to grow your beard out big and bold; to spend a whole week’s pay on a pair of front row Lady Gaga tickets; to only eat truffle fries on Sundays; or even to make an evaporating documentary of your dog’s life with Snapchat. Liberty enables us to pursue happiness in a uniquely personal way.
Wow. One can do nothing but admire the unalloyed audacity that allows Liberty to construct a paragraph that seems to equivocate between universal human rights on one hand, and Snapchat documentaries of your dog on the other. Good grief. And notice, once again, the fatal phrases "uniquely personal" and "authentic self." Is it bland cynicism that reduces the meanings of these words to mere marketing?

What's more, Liberty Project claims to be reviving the essence of Liberty, a popular American lifestyle magazine from the first half of the 20th century. (The orange-and-white color scheme, as well as contributors named "Rand" and "Dagney," make me think of a different kind of "Liberty" magazine...) It's also not a shock to me that the old Liberty rebranded itself in the 1970s as "The Nostalgia Magazine"... more on that connection below.

But the big missing element here, that I can see, is self-reliance. I'm almost sure that Emerson and Thoreau never deluded themselves into thinking that growing a big beard was somehow a mention-worthy act of empowerment. Of course, Thoreau did sort of stay rent-free on Emerson's lakeside property, but... what I mean is that this latter-day notion of liberty is more the liberty of the schoolyard than the liberty of so-called Natural Law: do what you want (among choices pre-arranged for you) and if you have troubles there's always an "Adult" to take care of you.

I can't believe I'm going to sound so Kantian by saying this, but: accepting and fulfilling responsibilities, not blowing a whole paycheck on VIP Lady Gaga tickets (seriously, how could anyone but an adult-baby with a massive safety net of privilege afford to do that?), is the better part of liberty. Highly-mediated experiences—for short, HMX—are just a drug.

IV.

The Seattle Magazine article includes a rather telling paragraph about the appeal of Camp RAHH:
The notion of playing and exploring "just like when we were kids" is interesting, especially when nostalgia for the '90s—when a lot of millennials like me were actually heading off to summer camp—is all the rage. Earlier this year, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon reunited the Bayside High gang from popular '90s TV show Saved by the Bell in this video. The skit (good god, Zach Morris is ageless!) went viral and brought back a slew of memories for me, like plopping on the couch after school—my Fruit by the Foot snack in hand—and consuming three-and-a-half straight hours of television until the commercials started to shift from fun toy-related things to boring adult stuff like life insurance. Then there are Buzzfeed's endless listicles blazing with '90s glory: I had all these Ken dolls. I blew into Nintendo cartidges (it worked, dammit). And I was practically betrothed to Jonathan Taylor Thomas.
Not that I actively sought this particular revelation, but now I see more clearly how people enjoy Jimmy Fallon's nostalgia-baiting shtick. I still don't understand why: I thought it was a stereotype of the elderly to take long trips down Memory Lane. The Nineties—childhood—is only a couple decades old for me (and the reporter, and the RAHH demographic) right now.

This isn't Chuck E Cheese!
And why should we be nostalgic for childhood? Isn't it more typical (though not really less pernicious) to dwell on "glory days" such as Springsteen sang about? Note: the typical "best days of our lives" are (if life really sucks) high school or (less so) college and one's twenties or early thirties. Before family obligations set in, usually. Or else it's just the peak of one's virility, real or perceived. Why should we, Millennial twenty-and-early-thirtysomethings, be nostalgic when these should precisely be our glory days? And, uh, it's not as if the kids working at Amazon aren't doing well for themselves, or so everyone believes.

One possibility comes to mind, that's just brimming with existential horror: maybe online social-media services are so incredibly over-stimulating that it's something like psychological trauma in their own right? (Well, that plus 9/11, because It Changed Everything.)

Naturally, life past Y2K would be one continuous stressor: LiveJournal, Myspace, and Facebook all became widespread after the turn of the millennium. Life in the Nineties, meanwhile, was comparatively simpler. (It also may have been the sweet spot for advertising/marketing targeted at children.) We didn't have to care about politics; we didn't have to worry about jobs mere societal manifestations of our interests and talents; all we did was express our interests and talents! Perhaps this is the genesis of the pathology: run a study over all alleged "tech addicts" and oversharers and chronic FOMO sufferers, and see how many were helicopter-parented between various events in their tight-packed and oxygen-deprived schedules. I'd put decent odds on a positive correlation.

I'd almost rather believe the helicopter-parent-no-free-time hypothesis, because the alternative is that something else fucked with people and somehow they forgot how to operate like other humans. That's sort of a terrifying power and I'd much prefer unfortunate ignorance.

And yet, notice the memory in the Seattle Magazine article: "[P]lopping on the couch after school—my Fruit by the Foot snack in hand—and consuming three-and-a-half straight hours of television." That's definitely a mediated experience, but not necessarily a helicopter-parented one; if anything, it's an absence of parents. (One can still imagine the coincidence: absent as long as the kid is having a good mediated time, raining down an anxious hail of protectiveness as soon as feelings are hurt or a good time is no longer being had.)

V.

So, in the end, what can I say in summary about my feelings on Camp RAHH? After nine sections of criticism and snark, you might be surprised to read that I don't hate what they're trying to do, at least not the kernel of their intent. It's just that it seems like a weird grab-bag of structure, a halfway-serious "detox" retreat mixed with oh-so-stereotypical Millennial "lol why not" spend-daddy's-money "adventures." If it's meant to actually ease people out of the toxic tech-obsessed lifestyle, I doubt it'll work, since the only people going to it will probably be tech-obsessives. Case 1: People really need the detox, because they lack the willpower to cut down on their tech use themselves. Then they'll be sufficiently weak-willed after a mere three days that they'll fall back to technology, since all their new friends have the same obsessive levels of connection. Case 2: People will genuinely gain better habits and form "analog" friendships that stay that way after camp. Then why exactly did they need the camp in the first place?

If it's meant to be a fun quasi-nostalgic summer camp experience, then why market it as something new and exciting? Nothing about what's on offer, is surprising in the least.

My mood on contemplation of Camp RAHH isn't "anger" as much as "bleakness" or "despair." Should navel-gazing nostalgia be so glamorized? Should tech-addiction, to the extent that such a thing even exists, be treated so cavalierly as to be made into a Kickstarter campaign? I despair because I see two main possibilities: that nobody's actually addicted, they're just malajusted tech-douches, in which case they need to fix their own shit; or addiction is real, in which case I can't help them since I'm not a medical or psychiatric professional.

If there's anyone I'm happy for in all of this, it's Camp Kirby, the site of both RAHH and Camp Quest. They deserve all the money they can get.

Summer camp for "adults," pt. 1 -- The Rahh of the wild

This post is a partial follow-up to: Bowling alone, camping together

I.

Many posts ago I wrote about the so-called "invention of loneliness" and the intentional community of adult Cool People who volunteer at CampQuest Northwest. To be honest it probably wasn't the best editorial decision; the post seems rather disjointed, and CQNW deserves better than that. But it's from Kayla (who's a CQNW staffer in addition to blogging at Crows Against Murder) that I learned about Camp RAHH.

Camp RAHH is "Seattle's Summer Camp For Adults," and if that doesn't already sound twee-or-maybe-unctuously-startuppy enough, check out their website, and their mission statement:
Let’s face it… we’ve got a problem. Our dependence on technology and the urgency of our demanding routines can often introduce unnecessary anxiety into our daily lives.  Social pressures to stay on top of everybody’s business - and to excessively share all of our own - can often lead to feeling overwhelmed without enough time to unplug and breathe. Check out Camp RAHH!'s 5 Core Values to see how we aim to curb these unhealthy cultural patterns.
Those five core values, incidentally, are (1) DETOX; (2) PLAY; (3) EMBRACE EVERY MOMENT; (4) AVOID PROFESSIONAL NETWORKING; and (5) ACCEPTANCE OF SELF AND OTHERS. Values #1 and #4 are the immediate odd ones out here, and form the crux of my intense disdain-mixed-with-despair for this whole enterprise, but I fear the others aren't innocent either.

"Camp RAHH!" - Who Cares If The Marketing Copy Makes Sense?


II.

Let's start with the First Core Value: DETOX.
Detox from harmful habits - Camp RAHH! will be free from of all tech devices, booze & drugs. Campers will experience activities and social interactions in a natural, unaltered state - without the various interruptive elements which have become culturally accepted norms. Let Camp RAHH! be the jumpstart to replacing these bad habits with a healthier approach to your every day - from mouthwateringly simple gourmet meals to deeply authentic conversations.
But really. Have these "various interrupted elements" really become "culturally accepted norms"? Or should I ask, in whose culture? Because while Camp RAHH's lament about the teched-and-drugged state of modern life could be David-Brooksian hyperbolic frustration at anyone who uses a smartphone or smokes now-legal weed, I doubt it. I'm actually taking them at their word: there are quite a lot of people in the Pacific Northwest (and elsewhere) who use technology and mind-altering chemicals excessively. As in, for every problem one should first look for a tech or drug solution: an app, a device, or an off-label dosage of some prescription pill. This is the techie-startup-Millennial set. Or, if you're attempting to be a Thought Leader writing for Mashable, the (ugh) Young Urban Creatives.

And yet these people seem to lack the creativity to not glue themselves to "the cloud," or to engage the broader press of humanity rather than digitally clap their hands for The Help. Self-diagnose with anxiety disorder all you want; it's probably a vicious circle, and you're still recapitulating the worst of Fitzgerald's New-Egg nouveau riche.

Which brings me to the end of this Core Value: "a healthier approach to your every day - from mouthwateringly simple gourmet meals to deeply authentic conversations." No. My mind recoils from this clause. Beyond the marketing-speak that is the use of "every day" as a noun, I find the promise highly circumspect. For one, "simple gourmet" is not in any sense "every day." If it's truly simple-to-make food, is it really gourmet? If it's really gourmet—and it is, they hired an executive chef from the (yes, really) Huxley Wallace Collective meta-restaurant, formerly of the nothing-under-$10 Skillet Street Food, with the gall to sell $17 meatloaf as a Monday-dinner "Blue Shirt Special"—then by definition it's non-trivial to make at home, so in this case "simple gourmet" is the same as "minimalistic art." That ain't "every day" unless you want to dedicate a hobby to it.

Finally, "deeply authentic conversations." To me, strongly signalling a particular preference for "deep authenticity" sort of loses the plot; if you meet a "deeply authentic" person on the road, kill them. I mean that if you feel compelled to gush about an experience as "deeply authentic" then you have now commodified it, de-authenticated it. Your experience is now a buzzword and a line on your resume. Why wouldn't an experience be authentic? Is it because the experiencer is thinking, first and foremost, of which Instagram filter would be most appropriate? How many Likes, Favs, RTs the proper status update will garner? Where the trendy trending places are to check-in to? Hell, some of the RAHHers said as much about regular life on their personal blogs:
Let’s be real: you can’t hold your Instagram photo. Unless you’ve printed it, its existence is limited to your screen. Is your existence limited by a screen? Are you thinking for yourself or for the sake of retweets and the lofty bragging rights of 100k Twitter followers? Are you living your life for the pretty Instgram photo, so you can receive validation from strangers and late at night as you wonder why you feel so unfulfilled because your life just looks so good, why doesn’t it make you feel that way too?

In the older post I scoffed at the notion of "the invention of loneliness," but surely there is something like "the invention of authenticity." History backs up my claim too, in some sense. On the one hand, you have the massive Internet backlash against an article in Vox from modern-day Victorian re-enactors. I do think the article was, ah, tonally dissonant. But in principle there's something to be learned by actually using the stuff that historical people used—see this rather sympathetic and persuasive post in r/BadHistory. Is such a lifestyle "authentic," though? I don't think so; that might what people read into the article's claims, and maybe that's the root of the backlash.

On the other hand, you have this episode of BackStory (a podcast I highly recommend!), about the American view of "wilderness". In particular, the creation of National Wilderness Areas is highly oxymoronic, as the areas are anything but left to their own natural devices. The "forest primeval" romanticized by 19th century Transcendentalists was, for thousands of years, actively managed by native peoples, so that English colonists favorably compared the woods of New England to the parks of their own homeland across the Atlantic.

So there's something there, but we seem to be fighting against a deep motivation to seek mediated experiences that match our ideas about authenticity, and then signal our appreciation of that 'authenticity', rather than experience authenticity itself, which needs no acknowledgement.

III.

What of the Fourth Core Value, AVOID PROFESSIONAL NETWORKING?
You are much more than your job, which is merely a societal manifestation of your interests and talents. Come to Camp RAHH! to have fun with the amazing people around you and build meaningful, authentic relationships based on who you are - not necessarily what you do for a living.
The first sentence is just brutal. Maybe this is just cynical marketing from Camp RAHH, a form of flattery. Of course everyone's job is completely determined by their "interests and talents"! And yet, is it so flattering to need the reassurance that you are more than your job? Isn't that the supposed default attitude of the American worker?

And again we see authenticity-as-prime-virtue pop up. Authentic relationships—is it naive to think that authentic relationships are likely to form over a long weekend? Is authenticity, at least in relationships, that easy? Then why seek it so strenuously?—not necessarily based on what you do for a living. Immediately I see a vicious paradox. If the only people who go to Camp RAHH are people who have problems forming relationships that aren't job-centered (or worse, personal-#brand-centered)... how likely is it that a three-day camp experience, with other people who have the same problem, is going to change things? We'd do as well to ask how well a one-off meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous goes, except the meeting is not exactly about getting sober or at least nobody's really going to force you to do it, just "do you" and hope for the best?

IV.

I said we'd return to the other three Core Values, and here we are. First up is PLAY:
Campers can easily shrug off the stresses of city living through a wide array of analog activities, classic camp games and cool instructional classes including: morning yoga, trail walks, swimming, stargazing, kayaking, foraging, arts & crafts, rock wall climbing, dancing, volleyball, music, board games, beachside bonfires, frisbee, archery and a whole lot more. Adventure awaits!
How is any of this "adventurous"? Aside from archery, which is still sort of niche, one has to be fairly insulated or sheltered to find yoga, hiking, kayaking, bouldering, board games, or Frisbee novel or surprising in the Pacific Northwest. You can't swing a grass-fed free-range cat around here without knocking over a trail-running Catan-playing Ultimate-Frisbee-from-a-kayak nut. And I write this with the utmost affection.

Now, EMBRACE EVERY MOMENT:
The entire weekend at Camp RAHH! will be focused on experiencing the present moment with clarity, intention and mindfulness.
There's potential here, but pretty much the entire predicate of this sentence is just so many empty Millennial buzzwords, dusted off the New Age shelf. Or else, the implication is that everyone's regular behavior and thinking are unclear, unintentional, and mindless. A sort of robotic, substance-clouded half-life, also known as working in tech. (Zing!)

Finally, ACCEPTANCE OF SELF & OTHERS:
Camp RAHH! provides an environment conducive to self-rediscovery in which individuals can freely be - whether that’s goofy, daring, loving, bombastic or introspective. If you fall, your counselors and fellow campers will be there to catch you and lift you up again.
Again with the HMX.

Oh yes, there's also music—Camp RAHH billed itself as a music festival in two other (and, notably, more general-audience) magazines. Not like a talent show, mind. The camp had performances by three local indie bands: Manatee Commune (blandly pleasant chillwave electronic stuff), Zach Fleury (gratingly bland indie acoustic Mumfordism), and Susy Sun (grating indie-girl-voice dreampop)... hooray! Only music that everyone is supposed to like and nobody is supposed to hate! Granted, it would be highly surprising to find campfire music performances that were risky. Risque maybe. But is the selection here any different from what you would find in the heart of Capitol Hill, Ballard, Fremont, or Belltown? Nothing sets it apart from urban existence. It's still the same kind of "chill."

And it would be so easy, too. Folk songs and Americana are still pretty huge. Why bother with electronica, except to ensure that nothing is upsetting?

V.

How did (allegedly) actual people plug Camp RAHH? Well, we have Fresh ʃess, a "digital marketing strategist" who is also good at abusing website-header typography and URL of this post:
We're all looking for a little more time to unplug and decompress, no? Here in Seattle, a group including some of my favorite creatives [Ed. *hurk* *gag* *barf*] has created just the space and time to do that.
As a Pacific Northwesterner who spends way too much of her time staring at a screen when she could be taking in the lush, beautiful nature scenery surrounding her, Camp RAHH! just seems so fucking cool.
One wonders if maybe a non-digital marketing strategist would have more time unplugged, or if marketing strategy isn't the least compressed job one could find... but again, is the second paragraph supposed to be some self-effacing joke? Or a cry for help? Fresh ʃess "could be taking in the lush beautiful nature scenery" but doesn't... why? Just do it! That's even a marketing slogan!

Here's Stone Cold Betch (aka Nicole), lifestyle blogger (including hella ironic(?) space magic), who asks Do YOU Need a Digital Detox?, only to answer:
We ALL need this: a dedicated weekend, summer camp style to make us unplug, recharge, and reconnect with people in the real world.
Well, that was easy. "All of us," then. Now, granted, Camp Quest is a whole week of unplugging for me, and I love that about it. But I don't want to be a camper, I want to be a counselor. I can do that and still "recharge and reconnect".
I think it’s important to think about how many people we, as young and hip and connected people, disrespect without trying because of our constant “need” to be on our phone. My grandma gives me the stare of doom when I’ve *unknowingly* grabbed my phone and started to look through it at dinner or something. I realized that’s not the social norm for most people. As a generation, we have terrible table manners.
Translation: I'm a huge douche, and so is everyone I know. Seriously. "As a generation" nothing, Betch! Just your little insular social bubble. Nothing but FOMO—really, narcissism sublimated into paranoiac social anxiety—forced you to get all those apps and services, after all. I know; I technically have an Instagram account, for joke reasons. It was work to use. Same with novelty Twitter accounts. Same with my actual Twitter account, any more. Microblogging and status-updating feels like more of a chore to me than does writing this novelette of a blog post. Think on that.
I’m taking a wild guess that we all have some kind of photo on Instagram with the hashtag #memories – or at least one associated (and hence the reason you posted) and, it sucks – you can’t actually remember much about said memories as you spent the entire time trying to figure out what or how to take the perfect photo to communicate said experience for social media.
Two things here. First, I don't! Ha! Assertion disproved! Second, some people seem far too desperate for #memories, like God and Zuckerberg forbid that you do something and it's not memorable enough. This is what I think underlies the Tinder-girl boilerplate of "I love going on adventures!" It's worth noting that an experience can be quite satisfyingly enjoyable, and yet not #memorable. At some point #memories becomes #nostalgia—I mean, #tbt—which is its own special evil.

And here's Billy Thompson, or BTHOMP, one of the Camp RAHH organizers:
Our work is largely in response to a growing trend of digital dependency that is threatening to undermine the way we connect with our friends, coworkers and community at large.
Again, I wonder: is it really a growing trend in the large? Or just within a subset of the population?
Campers from various backgrounds were empowered to emerge from their urban shells, connecting with likeminded people to explore new interests and practice being present in the moment.
"Empowered," eh? Well, this leads me to a final question: Is all of this really necessary? And, what exactly is "all of this"? That'll be the topic of part 2, because this thing is long enough already. Until then, go on your own hike or something.